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Guild of St. Agnes Celebrates 100 Years



WORCESTER — A hundred years ago, a group of people with compassion for women and their children went forward with a simple idea: Provide a home for poverty-stricken women awaiting appearances in court and for their children, and provide them with the basics.

Those basics were a roof over their heads, compassionate care for their children and some training, perhaps some education to steer them toward a brighter future.

Many changes have taken place for the Guild of St. Agnes over those 100 years, but the goal of making a better future for children hasn’t changed.

A program that started with just 19 children and their mothers in one house on Vernon Street now serves more than 1,300 children in seven centers and 100 family child care homes in Worcester County and five after-school programs in schools for children four weeks to 12 years old.

The programs cover six cities and towns, with a budget of $13 million and employs 300 people, many of them single moms themselves who are committed to providing all parents with the best child care possible.

“We really were an agency that was pro-woman right from the get-go,” said Guild Director of Human Resources and Public Relations Sharon Woodbury.

The idea came from a police matron who saw that the poor women who were either arrested for prostitution or ended up in the hands of the police after emigrating (sometimes the same people) were without resources to have their children cared for. She joined forces with Roman Catholics and those concerned with social welfare to establish the guild to help feed, clothe, house and educate what we would now call at-risk women and children.

The concept was compassionate and visionary.

“There’s a lot of credit to be given to these early founders,” said Director of Development Ann Flynn.

The guild united forces with the Sisters of Providence, familiar to many as the group that ran St. Vincent Hospital for many years, and thereby provided medical care to the women and children who came to the guild as well.

The group, like many nonprofits, has had its ups and downs with management and administration, as the diocese changed from Springfield to Worcester, and as the Sisters of Providence dwindled.

In the 1970s, the guild became an independent nonprofit, no longer operated by the Roman Catholic Church.

Throughout all these changes, however, the vision of those original compassionate folks has remained at the forefront.

It helped the guild as a key player in caring for poor and sick families during the flu epidemic of 1918 and during the first and second World Wars, when many more women either were without husbands to help or had lost their husbands.

High-quality child care became particularly important during World War II, when many women went to work to take the places of men fighting in Europe and the Pacific.

In the 1970s, Catholic Charities took over the social services component, while the guild retained the child care service.

And while the mission to provide that care has remained the same, Ms. Flynn said, the education provided to children and how it is viewed has changed radically.

“By age 3 or 4, the structure (of a child’s brain) is formed, but that doesn’t mean it’s all filled in. The more developed and complex the framework of early childhood education, the better chance a child has to succeed once they enter school,” she said. “That means it’s very important that the people who are interacting with these children are very knowledgeable.”

In short, that means overcoming what Ms. Woodbury calls the baby-sitter syndrome: viewing early childhood care as just baby sitting while it is in fact vital, especially to children from low-income families who have a harder time succeeding in school.

For the folks at the Guild of St. Agnes, that means making sure the staff is educated and motivated, but they admit it’s difficult. For those whose professional life is early childhood education, pay is low, and egislative support is vital for nonprofits to increase funding for programs for early childhood education and for the education of the providers as well.

It becomes, they admit, not just a legislative issue but a women’s issue.

Both Ms. Woodbury and Ms. Flynn say they’ve seen their organization jump through many hoops to get federal and state support for programs, only to find that, as recently happened to state aid, it becomes a casualty of legislative budget wars.

“In the last seven years we have not seen an increase (in education aid0,” said Ms. Woodbury. “That means our employees are not getting raises. Many of them are heads of household. You’re talking about the working poor.”

While the guild lobbies for increased aid, the daily work of educating young children and keeping up with trends in education continues. The guild is confident that, with dedicated staff and a mission for which there’s clearly a need, a program with so much growth will continue to grow and change to fill the needs of children for another 100 years.

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